Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Anne Hathaway’s performance in Colossal.
When I first watched Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal I felt uncomfortably seen. It was April 2017, and I was deep in the throes of denial over my alcoholism. “I’m not out of control,” I’d say, repeating a lie I’d become a pro at telling myself by this point. But my denial was just that–a refusal to come to terms with the road my life had inadvertently gone down. My rock bottom was rushing to meet me in slow motion. Anything that forced me to reflect on that fact burrowed under my skin to join a collection of other addiction stories I found distressingly relatable.
And that’s where my mind was as I sat in a dark Alamo Drafthouse one Brooklyn afternoon, the familiar clinking of highballs and pints filling the theater. The boozy audience was unaware they were about to witness an unflinching representation of alcoholism and the thorny path it takes to get sober.
I found Colossal‘s themes on toxic masculinity deeply moving in the wake of the 2016 Presidential elections. But I didn’t want to engage with its commentary on the self-destructive nature of alcoholism. Because, in doing so, I would have to face my own reality; one that looked incredibly similar to Anne Hathaway’s accomplished performance as Gloria. To see a blackout drunk spend her hungover mornings filled with shame frightened me because it was me.
But what makes Hathaway’s Gloria unique from other alcoholic characters, like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, is how she resists making this yet another story about the abject horrors of addiction. She instead crafts a compassionate portrayal of what genuine alcoholism looks like, which allows audiences to understand the real humans underneath the soused-up stereotypes.
Laid off from her job and dumped by her boyfriend over her unchecked drinking problem, Gloria moves back to her small New Hampshire home to get her life back on track. She quickly meets Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend who never left town, and now runs his family’s bar. They become fast friends, and Gloria integrates into his tight-knit circle of drinking buddies, enabling her alcoholism further just at the moment she wanted to stop.
But Colossal isn’t just about alcoholics and the people that love and enable them. It’s also about gigantic monsters in the Japanese tradition of kaiju. After waking up from yet another nightly bender after blacking out in a children’s playground, her entire world changes. News breaks that a gigantic monster has materialized over South Korea, decimating neighborhoods in the capital of Seoul. The horror becomes even more profound once she makes the revelation that she’s intrinsically linked to the monster, which only appears when she’s in a playground at exactly 8:05 each morning.
Hathaway’s Gloria comes to this realization after she recognizes the monster mimicking her own personal nervous tic. Whenever she feels a rush of anxiety, she unconsciously picks at the top of her head, just like the monster did as it smashed through South Korean skyscrapers.
This tic is a psychological gesture Hathaway uses throughout her performance. Devised by acting practitioner Michael Chekhov, psychological gestures are physical actions that help externalize an internal emotion or motivation. As Gloria picks at her head, we see Hathaway making both a literal and metaphorical commentary on addiction. She’s scratching at an itch that’ll never go away, just like alcoholics take shot after shot hoping the next will sate their unquenchable thirst.
Hathaway uses this gesture throughout the first act of the film to establish Gloria as a newly-sober nervous wreck. When Oscar invites her back to his bar, she begins to scratch her head as she clocks every single liquor bottle behind the counter. She tries to avert her gaze, but the booze is like a magnet reminding her she has a never-ending thirst that fills her with shame. She doesn’t want to look, but she literally can’t help herself–a feeling every alcoholic knows too well.
This is one of the nuances of sobriety Hathaway absolutely nails in Colossal. This isn’t the stock cinematic stereotype of a “town drunk” who begs for a bottle of rotgut. This is a mere fact of reality for all recovering alcoholics, whether you’re five months or fifteen years sober. We’re not fantasizing about the ecstasy of feeling drunk; we’re paralyzed by the physical embodiment of our trauma. As a cloud of quiet shame crosses Hathaway’s face as she stares into her boozy abyss, our hearts break. In an instant, not only do we see Gloria’s addicted longing–but we see how much she doesn’t want substances to control her life.
After Gloria realizes she’s the kaiju destroying South Korea, we don’t really see Hathaway use that psychological gesture again until the film’s climax. You can imagine her anxiety would shoot through the roof after making the kaiju connection, but her tic doesn’t reappear until Oscar’s enabling takes a violent turn. I find this shows Hathaway being highly intentional in how she uses her physicality to represent the emotions of an alcoholic getting back on the wagon.
As she begins to try and make sense of what’s happening to her life, she finds herself with a renewed sense of purpose. One that doesn’t revolve around when and how she’ll get her next drink. Even though she’s contending with a cataclysmic event, because she has less time to linger on her cravings, or languish in self-destruction, her tightly wound ball of stress begins to unravel. Hathaway’s world may be out of control, but her newfound sobriety is keeping her center in a way her nervous tic never could. You don’t have time to drink when you’ve got to stop an unimaginable horror.
It wasn’t giant monsters and robots attacking a major city, but in my early sobriety, I found my own renewed sense of purpose in writing. Funneling all that raw, newly-sober energy into an art form gave me the opportunity to regain a creative, emotionally-stable life again. All because I didn’t have time to sit around dwelling on my trauma. That’s a story that’s not exclusively my own either. We can’t all be inter-dimensionally connected to a kaiju, but every alcoholic finds recovery by reigniting their sense of purpose–whatever that purpose may be. The resilience Gloria embodies as she takes stock of her life is what makes Hathaway’s performance one of the most relatable depictions of sobriety I’ve seen on screen.
And that relatability is stretched all the way until the film’s final shot. After traveling to South Korea to personally put a stop to the chaos and destruction, Gloria stumbles into a bar. As she sits down and begins to cry, the bartender asks her if she saw what just happened. Gloria, delirious, asks her if she wants to hear an amazing story. The bartender replies with a question of her own, “Would you like something to drink?” Gloria cringes instantly as the screen cuts to black, sending the audience into the lobby with one last dash of levity.
But does Hathaway’s Gloria wince at this question because she wishes she could drink or is it something else? When the film was first released, Hathaway told Film School Rejects,
“This movie is for somebody that’s been in recovery for 10 years, 20 years, who has that chip and knows that you can defeat a monster, you can do the most heroic action, [and] at the end of the day you still can’t have a drink. And that appealed to me.”
Her answer shines a light on how I believe that final shot should be read. The drinkers in the audience laugh, seeing in Gloria the womp-womp consternation of an alcoholic who secretly wishes they could still imbibe. But to seasoned survivors of alcoholism, because Hathaway was consciously creating a performance that could speak to them, we see in Gloria’s reaction a perfect representation of dry living in a wet world.
The bartender’s question to Gloria is benign. Clearly, she couldn’t know our heroine is an alcoholic. But it gets to the heart of an untold story of sobriety in a culture that fixates on drinking. We must prepare ourselves to engage with our trauma whenever we go out–no matter what.
Thanks to sobriety though, we also get to choose how we react when suddenly faced with our addicted past. Do we let resentment over our inability to drink responsibly fester until it explodes, or will we don a clownishly exasperated face like Gloria to blunt the impact of a tough question we’ve heard hundreds of times?
Gloria’s quasi-comic reaction is a face every alcoholic will have made at some point on their road to recovery. It’s also a pointed encapsulation of why Anne Hathway’s vividly realized performance in Colossal is so relatable to the real alcoholics in the audience. She surfaces true nuances about alcoholism rarely explored in film. Through the lens of kaiju cinema, she delivered a refreshing take on the physical and psychological tolls of addiction that reflect the real experiences of every person living the rest of their lives on the proverbial wagon.